Saturday, November 20, 2010


I teach a creative writing class at Cheltenham Adult School near Philadelphia...It's incredibly gratifying, because you couldn't  find a more motivated group of students wedged into the desk chairs of a public highschool classroom.

Recently in class, we discussed the family stories we grew up with.  Did our families tell ancestor stories around the dinner table?  Was the atmosphere fogged by secrecy?  Did the chaos or conflict of the moment dominate conversation? How did the particular voices shape us and our writing?

In the years I've taught the class, our backgrounds and life experience have been about as different as you can imagine: Over-privileged, under-privileged, Black, White, Latino, physically challenged, highly educated, high- school educated. This semester we are joined by a sweet-faced seeing eye dog who rests on the floor, sometimes offering a sigh in response to the conversation.

As we talked about family stories, commonality emerged. The voices we heard as kids shaped us as people, found their way into our writing.  Some families spoke one language at home, but English at school. Within those shifts, sometimes deeper shifts demanded adaptation.  Street lingo shapes a kid's identity, but maybe it's forbidden at home. Someone else might have heard too much of it at home, wishing the grownups would talk more like grownups.  Those voices become part of how you think, how you see the world.  Was correct grammar a moral crusade in your household? Do you rely on the world being a formal, highly ordered place? (Those who know me know what I'm talkin' 'bout!)  If language was ever used against you as a weapon, what do you now believe about the power of words? And what if most of what you heard at home centered around the phrase "don't ask"?

More complicated, what if the message don't ask was never stated outright? Who'd you go to for information?  An aunt?  How does that shape your view of what it means to be close to someone?  Did you ever dig through anyone's desk, looking for the person who wouldn't reveal herself to you?  Were family relationships so chaotic that stories never saw the light of day, except in skirmishes?  Was a potential storyteller silent in your family, closing off part of your history?  Did stories remain at the level of anecdote, safe, avoiding territory potentially threatening to the family's view of itself?

Secrets.  Lies.  Lies disguised as truth.  How do you find the 'real' story about your family?  If that's not important to you, what stories have you created to shape your own identity? What stories are important to tell your spouse, your friends, your kids?  What's your "native" diction? In my case, it was highly formal: Two words I knew at a very young age were vulgar and impertinent (the latter often directed at me).

Our heads are full of running commentary--the interior monologue that dominates so much of our conscious life.  Family and friends reshape the monologue in relation to our history--the story of who we are changes all the time.

In my view, the really lucky ones get to explore these questions through their writing.


Catherine Stine said...

My father used to tell the story often, of his Uncle Donald, who wanted to be a painter. Apparently, Don's parents forbade him to go to art school, so he went into banking. I remember visiting him, and his paintings literally lined the walls. They were quite good, all landscapes of Pennsylvania. But I always wonder how much better he could've been, and in what ways he would have stretched, had he been able to hone his craft with a mentor.
I think my father told this story so often because he wanted to go into a creative field (he painted and played classical piano). He seemed frustrated and angry that he never explored that side, and for me it became a warning--to always follow your passion.

Helen said...

...and then there are people who become artists whose children are so turned off by the financial fallout that they become investment bankers and when their own children want to be artists, the bankers forbid it so their children end up as resentful wage earners, but when THEIR kids want to be artists, the resentful wage earners encourage it, and so we have a new generation of poor artists, and their kids....

Circle of life.

Mark said...

Hi there - found your blog via the red room.

Much of what I write about is my children and the astonished wonder that I find in fatherhood. Family stories are often of the past, but they are also happening now, around us. Capturing those moments, and especially how we feel (rather than just what happened) is difficult - but through writing, we can at least make a start.

Nice blog. If you'd like to lok at mine:

Mark's latest post is at :